Building regulations come into play whenever new construction begins, an existing structure is rebuilt, or even when renovations are undertaken (sometimes with projects as small as replacing fencing or doors). If you’ve applied for permits and researched local codes and ordinances before, the process may seem tedious and like a lot of unnecessary bureaucratic red tape. But building regulations exist for a reason.

The Differing Codes and Regulations

A little bit of research will show you that codes differ depending on where you live. The reason for that stems in part from the origins of building regulations. Codes didn’t begin on a national level but were instituted locally. Building codes developed in the 19th century from early fire ordinances and from insurance regulations.

It wasn’t until the early 1900s that regional groups began to gather and modify the scattershot local rules into sets of model codes. Even then, standards were split between three distinct regions: one for the east coast and midwest, one for the west coast, and one for the southern states. In 1994, the three regional entities joined to form the International Code Council that provides a unified set of code that states and local entities can adopt.

Even with an international standard now in place, variations occur locally because of addendums and amendments usually driven by local conditions. In coastal areas, for example (such as Florida), prone to hurricanes local codes stress protection against high winds and flooding. On the other hand, regions impacted by seismic activity have rigorous codes for foundational and structural support to prevent building collapse.

What to Consider When Building

Because more information comes to light concerning building safety and as new materials and procedures are developed to protect against hazards, codes, and regulations are frequently updated. That is why it is important as you begin any building project to research current regulations. As you plan your project you should consider:

  1.  A parcel map: An existing structure on a plot of land doesn’t mean that it was legally built there.  If you have your assessor’s parcel number you should be able to access local records to find out if your site is approved for building.
  2. Zoning laws: These regulations establish how the land can be used and what type of building can be undertaken on a particular site. Some areas, for example, are zoned for residential buildings only while others may be zoned for commercial use. It is important that you know whether your site allows the use and structure you intend.
  3. Permits: A building permit is required to build a new structure or to renovate an existing one. You will need to submit plans that include drawings of the structure, floor plans, measurements, exterior materials, and an elevation view in order to receive a permit. It is also important to know that whoever applies for the permit is responsible for construction-related damages. For involved projects, you may need multiple permits for plumbing, electrical, and other specific circumstances.
  4. Building codes: Once you have permits, you need to familiarize yourself with building codes, which cover structural standards for the building, fire regulations and life safety systems, energy efficiency rules, and area-specific regulations related to natural disasters.
  5. Local ordinances and covenants: Just because you know codes and regulations for one area, don’t assume they will apply to all places you build. You should check on local ordinances that differ from standard code and check for local covenants such as those established by Home Associations.

Protecting Yourself

You are protecting yourself by following local building regulations. Some dubious contractors may try to convince you that permitting and codes are unnecessary impediments that only slow down the process. Don’t listen! Failure to properly permit or follow codes can result in expensive modifications and even in the property being demolished.

It’s also a good idea to stay up-to-date on major code changes, particularly if you live in an area prone to certain types of natural disasters. As codes change, some modifications can be costly, but if disaster strikes, most insurance companies do not provide compensation for costs incurred in updating necessary codes. You can, with some policies, purchase riders that offer additional coverage for code change costs.